—National Gallery, London
Or lion. Too little marble left for certainty:
affixed to a bone-like armature, just a flank
and scored shoulder, and far down the missing,
crouching shape, a single, splay-toed paw.
The companion, or mate, is better formed
and offers a template to trace a bit, image to absence
to memory, until the lioness fills.
The exhibit is Fragments and Dislocations:
Sight and Sightlessness. Across the room
in Renaissance, the painter, retinas tattered
as a saint’s hem, might have filled a lioness
differently: absence first, then memory,
and then the lines around his own vision, its crags
and wilderness. His century failed him,
a placard says. Just eye-lid balms
and powdered rhubarb. What retina remained
must have caught his subject’s chosen states—penitence
and ecstasy—nearsightedly, which would explain
the perfect stones, less perfect trees. Or perhaps
his partial sightlessness was corneal, and thus
the painting’s mood, front-lit through gauze.
In either case, what the painter knew—that his saint
and tiny crucifix would not adorn an altarpiece—
comes to us more slowly. Wood grains,
punch patterns, and the small keyhole
beneath a varnished leaf, suggest a sacristy cupboard,
not worship’s place, but preservation’s.
Chosen states, the placard said.
Vacancy and memory. Ecstasy and penitence.
And then, His partial vision of the whole
produced a partial masterpiece:
a saint—Jerome—and grizzled robe, flawless
in its dust. The rest is incomplete, but zero-mass
radiography, its lights and darks reversed,
reveals a shape beneath the scene:
Jerome as just two simple lines, white arc
across white axis—before they both were white-
washed over, and the saint began,
and umber brought the lion to him.
"In 2011, London’s National Gallery ran an exhibit called 'Dislocations,' which displayed fractured altarpieces and orphaned fragments of art and carefully explained how the pieces might or might not once have been united. Using x-rays, punch patterns, pilaster grains and more, the exhibit presented dozens of 'jigsaw puzzles,' always incomplete. The exhibit my poem describes is imaginary, but it’s indebted to the National Gallery and to the British Museum, where 'Crouching Lion or Lioness' is on permanent display."